The Changing Face of Door County, WI

I grew up in the Upper Midwest – Milwaukee, WI to be exact. Okay, well I guess I did more than just grow up here – I’ve lived here all my life. Like so many people that grew up in this area of the US, my family vacationed all the time in Door County, WI. For those of you not from the Upper Midwest, I think some explanation of Door County is in order.

Door County is one of those areas that is truly special. It has that same unmistakable – but also undefinable – feeling about it as so many of the truly special rustic areas of the world have. Like the gentleman farmers living in the woods of Vermont, and the beautiful areas of Tuscany and Provence; like Laguna Beach in the 70’s, or Whistler in the 80’s, it was a place where people lived simple lives, but also high-quality lives. Fresh, local food served at local restaurants, and local wine has always been a mainstay. An appreciation for Nature, the Great Outdoors and hard work kept people healthy and happy. Indeed, some of my best memories are of biking along sun-drenched back-roads, tall golden grasses and savannah flowers swaying in the sun between wood-stands of birch, maple and pine trees.

An artistic spark was started some time ago, and now it is no problem to take in multiple plays, musicals, and concerts in the same week. The visual arts took off as well, with local painters, photographers and sculptors hosting art shows, with artisans like blacksmiths, glassblowers, and furniture makers joining the fray. In short, Door County was a wonderful area full of beaches, hiking, biking, good food and wine, and culture, sailing, festivals, and all of it delivered without any pretense. It’s easy to see how it earned the nickname, “Martha’s Vineyard of the Midwest”. However, times have changed.

I’m afraid to say that Door County is no longer the special and simple land I remember from my youth. It is still pretty magical, sure. But these days, you’re going to have to pay for it. You see, at some point in time people from Northern Illinois (i.e., Chicagoland) figured out that their state is no fun, and that Wisconsin is. I say this with no ego – it is simply the fact of the matter. And so, when people from Chicagoland want a quick getaway, they turn to Wisconsin. At some point they figured out that the simple pleasures of Door County were a desirable antithesis to the rat-race of the big city.

Slowly but steadily, word of the wonderful area that is Door County spread around Chi-Town. It wasn’t long before they realized that not only was Door County a physical and mental wonderland, it was also incredibly cheap compared to what they were used to paying around Chicago. After this epiphany, people from Chicago started buying up houses and land like they were picking up shares of Google’s IPO. Don’t get me wrong, people from Chicago aren’t bad in-and-of themselves. I even have friends and a sister-in-law from the area, and they’re great. However, there is a problem with too many of them being in a small area that was supposed to be a place to get away from it all, and I’ll explain why.

Firstly, once the businesses realized how much money people from Chicago had to spend, the prices went up – way up. Nowadays a very plain, ordinary hamburger (meat, bun, pickles) will cost you $10 – $11 in Door County, a very mid-level fish dinner will be close to $18 (cod, not salmon or anything like that) and $50 for a decent (not amazing) steak. These are closer to Chicago prices than Milwaukee, and certainly wayyy off-base for rural-retreat prices. The price for camping reservations, winery tours, motels, bike or kayak rentals, and those beautiful artisan-produced crafts have skyrocketed as well. $2,900 for a simple wrought-iron and wood bench? It didn’t even have any fancy designs in it! C’mon people!! But of course, even the people that have lived there forever must now pay these inflated prices for everything, so how can they afford to live there without charging extreme prices themselves?

Secondly, they bring the city with them. I know they don’t mean to, but they do and it would be very tough not to. I mean, it’s a 5hr drive up from Chicago and a lot of them just go for the weekend. A 5hr drive up Friday afternoon and back down Sunday afternoon doesn’t give you much time to relax and re-pace yourself. Nowadays the small-towns in Door County feel busier than downtown Milwaukee. And with so little time to do things, everyone is rushing around to get it done and get back home. With no time to simply bike from one small hamlet to the next anymore, the arterial roads are clogged with IL-plated SUVs, honking and yelling at everyone (and speeding like crazy when the traffic finally clears) cause they’ve got “shit to do!”. When I want to vacation to a city, I’ll do so. When I go to a place like Door County, I don’t want to deal with city-life for a while, you know? It’s good to separate the two – don’t bring the big city with you when vacationing in a small hamlet. I mean, if you just want traffic and noise, please just stay back down in Chicago, because Door County would be better off without you.

On my last trip there, I went with my lovely girlfriend Becki, and I was a bit apprehensive of the whole trip. It was her first time going to Door County, and I wasn’t sure how to demonstrate how good it could be – how to demonstrate how it used to be. We stayed at Ephraim Shores, a place we’ve been staying for years. It’s still as quaint and friendly as it always has been, which was a relief. I think she was enjoying it well enough at the beginning despite the traffic and crowds (both of which are things she doesn’t really care for), though not really falling in love with the place. That’s when we decided to take the ferry to Washington Island. I had never been there before despite 30 years of visiting Door County, and didn’t really know what to expect.

Washington Island, as it turned out, was exactly what we needed. It is very much the Door County that time forgot. Empty roads surrounded by beautiful fields and birch trees, exposed limestone creating natural terraces on the corners of small farmsteads, random little lakes and parks to stop and picnic at, and small shops where the workers where jeans and t-shirts with graphics of jumping Muskies on them instead of looking like models for Elle magazine. It really maintains Door County as a little slice of heaven sitting in the upper Midwest.

We didn’t spend much time there since we didn’t know what it was going to be like – only the afternoon. However, our time spent on the island is by far the most memorable from our trip. We forewent the motorized transportation (though it’s much better than the rest of Door County, it was still funny/sad that every car on the ferry to the island had an IL license plate) and rented bikes right in Detroit Harbor (the port the ferry drops you off in). We went slow, spent plenty of time at the lovely petting zoo and had a leisurely lunch. On more than one occasion we stopped biking just to marvel at the beauty of the fall colors, and the sun sparkling off the waves on the shore of Lake Michigan.

I think our next trip to Door County will be nothing but Washington Island, and maybe even an excursion to Rock Island. It’s kind of sad to leave behind the memorable little shops and towns from the Door County of my youth, but at the same time I’m not leaving them – they’re already gone, and replaced by a degraded, more capitalistic version of what they used to be. I’m glad we found Washington Island when we did though, because I’m sure it won’t be long before the relentless march of money and “progress” hits them too. Such is the nature of these things in the USA… Provence and Tuscany have endured for generations and don’t have a “70’s” or “80’s” caveat next to them like Whistler or Laguna Beach, but in North America capitalism comes along and wipes out the magic. Here’s hoping 6 miles of freezing, tumultuous Lake Michigan waters can keep Washington Island unique for a little longer still, so my children can experience a little of the old magic of Door County.